Jubilee year for Engelbert Humperdinck

British crooner marks 50 years since ‘Release Me’ with three shows in Israel.

‘When you find a nice place to work and you get a good reception, you always want to come back.”
That’s how 81-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck explains his third round of sold-out shows in Israel in the past six years. When most of us are lucky to get out of bed in the morning, Humperdinck is still traveling around the world and crooning his extensive collection of pop and ballad standards on a regular basis.
“I don’t want to slow down. It’s my life, I love being on the road and giving concerts,” the British singer said in a phone conversation late last month from his adopted home in California.
And it’s been a very successful life.
Humperdinck has sold more than 150 million records across the world over the past 50 years since his 1967 breakthrough “Release Me.” He’s marked this year’s milestone by returning to his original record company, Decca, and releasing a two-CD compilation – Engelbert Humperdinck 50: The Legend Continues – that has sparked renewed interest in his career.
In addition, an ambitious 11-disc boxed set – The Complete Decca Studio Albums – was released last month, with many of the albums seeing their first digital hearing.
“It’s amazing to look back on 50 years of making music, and I’ve been pleased by how extremely well the album is doing in the charts. Decca is happy too, and it’s nice to be back with them,” said Humperdinck.
“We are thrilled with the response to Engelbert Humperdinck’s new album,” said Tom Lewis, director of A&R at Decca Records, in a statement. “It’s incredible to see the way he continues to connect with his fans – his voice has the ability to transcend generations.”
Along with the likes of Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach, he’s been one of the handful of non-rock artists from the 1960s who have forged cross-generational appeal. Among his fans are Blur founder Damon Albarn, one of the masterminds behind Britpop favorites The Gorillaz, star producer Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, Train) and Adele songwriter Dan Wilson.
Born Arnold George Dorsey in India to a British military officer and a music-teaching mother, Humperdinck resettled in Leicester, England, when he was 10, and began studying the saxophone. As a teen he entered a singing contest in a local pub, and discovering a new talent, put down his sax forever.
Renamed Gerry Dorsey, the young singer was making a name for himself throughout the UK in the early 1960s until coming down with tuberculosis, which sidelined him for the better part of a year. When he was healthy, he took on a new manager, Gordon Mills, who had some interesting ideas.
“When I first started singing, I didn’t know which direction to take – I sang rock & roll and all kinds of things. When Gordon came along, he started listening to songs for me to record and he directed me toward becoming a ballad singer and really stamped my style,” said Humperdinck in an earlier interview with The Jerusalem Post conducted before his 2011 shows.
It wasn’t just the style of song Mills changed, he also suggested a radical name change. With the other artists in his stable, Mills had done away with their given names and created new personas with names like Gilbert O’Sullivan (a play on Gilbert and Sullivan), Tom Jones (after a popular British film of the time). Englebert Humperdinck was the 19th-century composer of such operas as Hansel and Gretel.
“When Gordon first suggested it, I thought he was talking about forming a group with that name,” said Humperdinck, referring to the psychedelic rock band names of the day, like Strawberry Alarm Clock and Pink Floyd.
“I was a little taken aback when he said he wanted that name for me, but what can a starving singer do? I accepted it. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
With an outlandish name, striking muttonchop sideburns and matinee-idol looks, it didn’t take long for the new Humperdinck persona to make an impact.
“Release Me” was so big that it prevented the momentous double-sided hit by The Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from reaching the number one slot in the UK. Englebert Humperdinck was suddenly a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
He even found himself with Jimi Hendrix in his band – for one night.
“Jimi hadn’t toured Europe yet, and they wanted to pair him with a name artist, so they put him on a bill with me,” said Humperdinck. “This was in Leicester, my home town. And my guitarist got sick and couldn’t play. ‘What am I going to do?’ I said, and Jimi answered, ‘don’t worry man, I’ll play for you.’” “I wish that show had been recorded. Having him behind me on guitar was like having three guitarists, he was that good.”
Aside from that fateful convergence, Humperdinck and the rock world didn’t intersect very much from then on. The expressive singer has defied trends and fads by sticking to his trademark tuxedoed balladry.
He told the Post last month that he’s encouraged that new generations of singers are keeping the musical tradition even as they add contemporary elements to the mix.
“There are some great singers in the market right now. I like Bruno Mars a lot, I think he’s great. And Ariana Grande as well – unfortunately the young lady had a mishap in my own country with that terrible tragedy in Manchester,” he said, referring to last month’s terrorist attack outside her show.
“It’s such a shame that these things happen. The job of an artist is to entertain and not get involved with politics. We give the people in the countries we are visiting a good show – that’s the purpose of an entertainer.”
And that’s what audiences will receive when Humperdinck performs on June 17 at the Congress Center in Haifa, June 19 at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem and June 20 at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
“I have a great eight-piece band that I’ve taken around the world. They know me so well that I don’t have to rehearse with them, we just do a sound check and we’re all set,” said Humperdinck, adding that he’s always happy to return to Israel.
“Every time I come back, I make sure to get around and check things out. I’ll be out there taking pictures for my memoirs.”
That’s one book that won’t have to embellish the facts to be a riveting read.